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At the salon, Egyptians plan their future

Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany's weekly salon provides a crucial space for discussion during this time of flux. Ousted President Hosni Mubarak had suppressed such events.

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“[The government] didn’t want his articles and voice to reach the people because then the people would have opinions and think about what’s going on,” says Bassam Awfiq, who has followed Aswany’s writings for several years. “Hopefully this will change now.”

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5,000-year-old tradition

Twenty minutes into the evening, women in the crowd broke into elated Zaghrouta (the popular high-pitched ululation) when Dr. Ahmed Zewail entered the room. Cheers continued as the Nobel-prize winning scientist took a seat next to Aswany and the two carried on with a political chat, continuing a five-millennia-old tradition.

The concept of meeting to exchange ideas dates to 3,000 BC when this type of gathering was a plaything of the elite, says Samir Ali of the University of Texas’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. Their composition shifted in 9th-century Iraq when they became more accessible to the middle class.

Gatherings then known as mujalaset, the root of which means “sitting down together,” popped up in Basra and Baghdad, and later Damascus, Cairo, and Aleppo. “They become a way for people to gain influence and form alliances,” says Dr. Ali, who has attended five of Aswany’s discussions in Cairo.

The concept became popular in 17th-century France where they were named “salons” after the rooms in which they were frequently hosted. The term has since made its way to the Middle East, where French culture is viewed with prestige, even if the forums predate France itself.

'The window is open for change'

Now, revolutions spreading across the Arab world have infused the salons with a new sense of excitement. Several attendees to Aswany's first post-Mubarak salon said it was the most crowded event in 15 years.

The room was filled with a feeling of hope, yet breaths of unease, about the uncertain days ahead. Many grappled with the question of what will come next. One university professor distributed a survey that solicited visions for Egypt’s future.

“The window is open for freedom and for change,” said Dr. Zewail, as he sat next to Aswany. “The circumstances are difficult, but this isn’t the end. This is the beginning.”

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